by Kim Hilsenbeck
The day began at 8:30 a.m. and ended past midnight. But to State Representative Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) that doesn’t matter. He knows the long days will end too soon, and there’s legislation to be read, people to meet and minds to sway.
Following a legislator for a day isn’t easy. But Isaac gave the Hays Free Press a chance to follow him during one of the final days of the 83rd Texas Legislature.
The interview began when tones rang through the PA system – ding ding, ding ding – in rapid succession.
Isaac’s legislative director Trey Thigpin said, “They give the 15- and then 10-minute warning to go to the floor.”
Just then, Isaac walked in. After some chitchat, he walked toward his personal office, waving to follow, “Come on back.”
Wearing the requisite business suit, he moved quickly, gathering his things for a long day on the floor. The conversation zipped from one topic to the next as he put papers in his briefcase.
He lingered on the issue of a bill on the house floor that day that would cause vehicle registration fees to increase significantly.
An editorial from the Dallas Morning News sat on Isaac’s desk. It supported passing House Bill 3664 by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) to increase passenger vehicle registration fees by $30.
“Smaller classes of vehicles see the biggest increase in fees if it passes,” Isaac said. “I want vehicle ownership and home ownership to be easier for people.”
And while he said he knows Texas roadways need more funding, he couldn’t support the bill to raise fees until the legislature fixes the problem of diverting those dollars to other purposes.
Until then, he said, “I’m a heck no.”
He signaled it was time to leave the office and head to the floor.
Isaac led the way out of his office, deep in the bowels of the capitol annex, several stories below ground level. Walking at a brisk pace on the carpeted hallway, he explained his position on the vehicle registration fee increase.
“Our fuel tax dollars – what you and I pay for every gallon of fuel that we buy – 75 percent goes to roads,” he said. “Years ago, we had more money in the account than we knew what to do with so the legislature said, ‘We’ll start diverting some of these dollars.’ They gave some to DPS and schools to maintain vehicles and buses – noble causes,” he acknowledged. “But not it’s original intent. And now there is definitely not enough money.”
As Isaac entered the main hallway, voices echoed as conversations swirled. He waved at legislators and staff members, never stopping.
Frustrated with the need for such a bill, Isaac continued, “We’re not stepping up to the challenges as we should be. We’re not doing anything and that’s what we’re here to do … We should be having 100 percent of our fuel tax dollars go to our roads, and we don’t. … If we’re short on money then the sales tax generated on the vehicles should go to roads.”
Five bills in the legislature this year deal with vehicle fees.
“This is the one bill we get to add money in roads and I hope it goes down in flames,” he said, adding the bill does not correct the funds allocation problem.
The walk to the floor of the legislature is a long one. But it gave Isaac a chance to walk through the main section of the capitol.
Rounding the main rotunda and looking down on the main floor, it was easy to see visitors – touring the building, standing in the center of the dome’s floor.
Isaac entered the hallway leading to the House anti-chamber, and the volume of voices increased 10-fold. About 25 lobbyists waited to pounce on the representatives. By law, they are required to stay outside the House doors. They, like all members of the public, may sit in the gallery to watch.
But in the anti-chamber, they glad-hand and thrust pieces of paper at legislators, trying to get support for their bill.
Isaac knew many of the lobbyists.
“Hey, how are you?” he asked one.
The lobbyist handed a paper to Isaac, who said, “Thank you,” then gave an audible “Oh” as recognition dawned on his face. It was an issue he didn’t support. He laughed good naturedly at the man.
“Save the paper,” he said. “Nice try.”
He took a few minutes to interact with the small group huddled by the stairs; they had literally seconds to plead their case as he continued toward the floor. He spent about 30 seconds talking with another man about two bills and looking at papers.
“I like this one so you can have this back,” he said. They talked about the second one briefly, then parted.
A woman in the crowd appealed to Isaac.
“Will you vote against this one?” she asked, handing him a sheet.
He asks her, “Which one?”
“1714, compliance history of Smith,” she replied. “Getting rid of it. In other words, we think we still need to keep that.”
“All right, I’ll take a look,” Isaac said.
The woman was with Public Citizen. Her handout said, “Vote no on Smith’s HB 1714 To Keep Our Communities Safe.”
Public Citizen called instead for adding amendments to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) compliance history program.
Is this crowd of lobbyists typical? “This is a light day,” Isaac said.
Entering the House chambers, the impressiveness of the room never ceases to amaze, with its massive chandelier, brass railings and leather seats imprinted with the State of Texas official seal.
A loud banging of the gavel signified that all representatives must check in.
Representatives’ desks are picked by seniority; Isaac’s is about halfway up the floor.
“We’re basically surrounded by freshmen members,” he said.
Isaac said he took that seat knowing there would be new representatives nearby.
After checking in, Isaac came over to the side row of seats and sat down, having time to talk since the first 20 to 30 minutes is reserved for resolutions.
He explained the process of speaking at either the front or the back mic –the front one for the representative explaining a bill, the back one for representatives asking questions.
It’s just one of many rules, procedures and protocols used in the Texas legislature.
Isaac crossed his leg over his knee, revealing a pair of boots that elicited a smile.
“I wore these today just for you,” he joked.
He explained that Lucchese, a well-known Texas bootmaker, offered any legislator the chance to design his or her own boots. Isaac included his name and the Texas House of Representative’s seal.
Suddenly, his attention turned to the dais.
“Okay, now we’re working on the calendar.”
The first bill on the calendar, SB 727, came up for a third and final reading. Isaac shouted over to Rep. Drew Springer, his deskmate, who entered Isaac’s affirmative vote, indicating by holding up his right index finger. (Two fingers would be a no.) Voting for someone else is allowed as long as the representative is on the floor. The measure passed 133-0, indicating 15 representatives were absent.
The third bill was sponsored by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and would expand “free” breakfast for every student, not just those schools with more than 80 percent low-income families. Isaac was prepared to vote against it, he said, because it’s an unfunded mandate for schools.
Do most legislators come into these sessions knowing how they will vote?
“Most of the people come here and their mind is made up,” Isaac said.
He listened to more discussion and questions from the floor as a line of representatives stood at the back mic.
Has he ever been swayed during a floor vote?
“I’m leaning that way right now,” he said.
In the end, he changed his intended vote from nay to yea based on today’s discussion – specifically the ‘opt-out’ clause allowing schools not to implement the program.
“It’s barely going to pass,” Isaac said, watching the red and green lights on the voter board. It passed, 73 to 58.
“It does help to pay attention sometimes because I didn’t realize there was an opt-out in there,” he said.
As a lunch was called and knowing he had some skin in the game today with other bills and amendments, Isaac hinted that the long lunch might be a delay tactic meant to stall a vote of a bill. Any items on the day’s calendar that didn’t make it to a vote would die at midnight.
With nothing to do but wait, and eat, Isaac headed back to his office where a portabella mushroom burger and hand-cut fries were waiting for him.
He sloughed off his suitcoat. Throughout lunch, Isaac offered in-depth discussion about bills, procedures and political maneuverings. That day, May 9, was the last day for House bills.
“We still have Senate bills,” he said. “So we’re still working on Needmore (a contentious bill to create a MUD on a 5,000-acre ranch in the Wimberley area), I’m working on two major bills: the Texas Emissions Reduction Program, which is TERP. It’s an issue that brings in $188 million a year in various forms – vehicle registration, diesel engine purchases.”
The bill’s second reading would be the following week.
“I also have the major events trust fund and the events trust fund. These are two major pieces of legislation,” he said.
For the major events fund, “We said they have to bring in at least a million dollars in sales tax revenue to receive a grant from the state.”
On the events trust fund, Isaac said those events need to bring in at least two million dollars in sales tax revenue but all the grant funds must be spent on facilities – shaded bus stops, shuttle buses, tents, a medical facility – but not for general maintenance.
The rest of the lunch break was spent reading letters from constituents. One man wrote to express his disappointment in Isaac’s support of the Needmore Ranch MUD bill.
A similar letter on the same legislation, said, in part, “I hope you are ashamed of yourself. I hope your own well dries up and your children go without water. I hope you are forced to live out your years in the part of Texas formerly known as the Hill Country before unethical politicians like you rammed unethical and behind the back decisions through.” It continued, “What are you, a complete idiot or just really greedy? Which is it?”
The letter was written by the executive director of a Christian organization called the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes in Austin.
“Can you believe that?” Isaac asked.
He then pulled out a stack of letters from Fuentes Elementary third graders. Sent in 2011, each letter lambasted Isaac for his stance on last legislature’s public education funding.
Finally, he found some letters where constituents praised him for his decisions and voting record, even when they didn’t personally agree with him.
Does Isaac want to keep doing what he’s doing? Will he run again?
“It’s very frustrating. It’s extremely frustrating,” he said, indicating, though, that he has a lot more work to do.